Domestic workers on a day off in Hong Kong. Photo: Asia Times

All domestic workers in Hong Kong will be given a voluntary Covid test for free from Friday to January 31 after 12 infected people were linked to a boarding house for helpers in Tai Po.

Domestic workers can book online for the test from Thursday and have them done at Community Testing Centers, said the Center for Health Protection. They are not required to pay the HK$240 (US$30.96) fee for the tests.

Test results will be sent to domestic workers via mobile messages within two to three days, while people who test positive will be contacted by health officials.

“We hope most of the domestic workers in the city will take the free tests,” Chuang Shuk-kwan, the head of the communicable diseases branch at the Center for Health Protection, said in a media briefing on Wednesday.

“Anyone who has illness symptoms should not wait for the test but seeks medical advice as early as possible.”

The decision was made after eight domestic workers, who had visited a boarding house in Tai Po, tested positive between Sunday and Monday. One domestic worker’s employer and three other family members tested positive on Monday. A total of 33 close contacts have been sent to quarantine centers.

No new cases were added to this cluster on Tuesday.

Some of the eight workers lived in the boarding house, while some stayed overnight there over the weekend. One of them, a 53-year-old helper, lived with her employer in Tai Po, while a 54-year-old helper worked for a family in an apartment on Kam Shan Road, Tai Po. They developed symptoms last weekend.

The government should tighten its regulations on boarding houses for foreign domestic workers, Leung Chi-chiu, chairman of the Medical Association’s advisory committee on communicable diseases, said Wednesday.

Nothing had been done to improve conditions since an earlier cluster in August, when more than a dozen helpers living in dormitories were infected with the coronavirus, he said. All dormitories should ban visitors for now, and authorities should test all helpers who’ve stayed in them, he added.

During the third wave of the pandemic in the summer, dozens of infected people were found at several boarding houses for domestic workers. Health officials said at the time it was difficult to find all the close contacts in the facilities due to a lack of records.

At the end of last year, the number of foreign domestic workers in Hong Kong was 399,320, 55% of them from the Philippines and 43% from Indonesia.

According to the law, foreign domestic workers are required to live with their employers. Some helpers stay in dormitories operated by employment agencies for a short period of time while searching for jobs or waiting to start a new contract.

These dormitories are normally private apartments for families with four to five people, but are usually crowded with 10 to 20 domestic workers. These premises are not covered by the Hotel and Guesthouse Accommodation Ordinance.

Cheung Kit-man, the chairman of the Hong Kong Employment Agencies Association, estimated there were about 300 unlicensed dormitories for domestic workers in Hong Kong. He said he heard that some expatriate employers allowed their helpers to spend the night out of the house on their day off.

After some people were infected during their “staycations” in hotels in October and November, the government tightened its rules to allow only up to four people to stay together in a guest room in a hotel or guesthouse, or up to eight people in a suite.

Medical experts have slammed the government for not imposing the same rules on boarding houses for domestic workers.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has come under fire for failing to control the virus.

The policy of “preventing the coronavirus from entering and spreading within the city” was not fully implemented in Hong Kong, resulting in a fluctuation in the territory’s pandemic situation, Zeng Guang, a member of the High-level Expert Panel of National Health Commission, told the Guangzhou Daily in an interview on Monday.

Shenzhen faced strong pressure in its battle as it had a frequent flow of people from Hong Kong, Zeng said.

Zeng added that Hong Kong had strict rules and excellent medical experts, but said it failed in policy implementation.

Regina Ip, a member of the Executive Council and Legislative Council, urged the government to launch a mandatory virus test scheme immediately as the current rules had proved ineffective.

Rebecca Chan Hoi-yan, a former pro-establishment lawmaker, said the government should start a campaign to require most people to stay home for two weeks from December 20 in order to stop virus transmissions. Chan said only one person in a family should be allowed to go out to buy necessities during the period.

Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health, said in a LegCo meeting on Wednesday that the government would not launch mandatory virus tests, which could be done only if all citizens stop their social activities for seven days.

The Center for Health Protection said 82 cases, three imported and 79 local, were recorded on Tuesday. Of the local patients, 35 had no known source.

Two more patients were added to the “construction site cluster” in Lohas Park, while seven more were added to the cluster at the Tseung Kwan O-Lam Tin Tunnel. On Wednesday, more than 80 people tested positive preliminarily.

Some of the residents living on the 32nd floor of Ming Yan House in Shatin will be sent to quarantine centers after infections were reported at four units close to one another. Other residents at the building will have to undergo mandatory coronavirus tests.

Health officials will inspect Ming Lai House in Choi Wan Estate in Ngau Chi Wan after infections were reported from six of the units there. Five of them face the same direction and are located on different floors.

Read: Dozens isolated after HK boarding house outbreak